How to Sleep When You Feel Sick


A man lays in bed and reaches for a tissue.
Summary
  • A good night’s sleep is essential to recovery but it’s often difficult to get the rest you need when sickness keeps you from sleep.
  • Body aches, breathing difficulties, and bad sleep hygiene are some of the factors that make it difficult to fall asleep.
  • Sleeping positions can also affect your quality of sleep. It is best to sleep on your right or left side, or your back, but avoid sleeping on your stomach.
  • Treating the symptoms of your sickness may make it easier to sleep. For example, those with a stuffy or runny nose should sleep with their head raised to allow the mucus to drain.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 70 million people in the U.S. experience chronic sleep disturbances.

People who do not get adequate sleep may experience a variety of problems, ranging from anxiety and depression to decreased fertility and a weakened immune system.

While you're sleeping, the body carries out important processes, such as repairing tissues and fighting infections.

Sleep is restorative, so it's especially important to get enough shut-eye when your body’s trying to heal from sickness or injury.

In this article, we'll discuss the connection between sickness and sleep. If you struggle to fall asleep when you’re sick, we'll explain how you can get a good night's sleep when you need it most.

Why is Sleep Important When You’re Sick?

Your body needs a lot of energy to heal and recover from sickness, and this happens best when you’re sleeping. While you sleep, your body has the chance to repair injuries, fight infections, and strengthen your immune system.

Ever notice how fatigue and weakness often accompany sickness? Your body protects you by forcing you to slow down and rest so that you can heal.

Why Do You Lose Sleep When You Are Sick?

If sleep is so important for the healing process, why is it that you often find yourself tossing and turning when you’re ill?

Cold and flu symptoms, such as a sore throat, runny nose, and blocked nasal passages, can make it difficult to rest.

Symptoms that cause breathing difficulties may significantly reduce your sleep quality and your body’s healing abilities, but there are some things you can do to help you fall asleep when you’re sick. This will be covered later on.

What Are Some Illnesses or Conditions That Make It Difficult to Sleep?

Any type of illness that causes stress or discomfort can make falling asleep challenging. Chronic illnesses can disrupt sleep and delay recovery when you're sick.

Here are some illnesses or conditions that could prevent you from getting enough sleep:

  • Colds and flu

  • Allergic rhinitis

  • Heartburn

  • Nausea

  • Acid reflux

  • Diabetes

  • Arthritis

  • Kidney disease

  • Thyroid disease

  • Pregnancy

  • Mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression

  • Neurological disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy

A couple sits in bed, the man is sneezing into a tissue and the woman pours medicine into her hand.

What Symptoms Affect My Sleep, and How Do I Treat Them?

If your sickness is keeping you from sleeping, getting better is the most logical way to return to a regular sleep pattern. However, most people don’t recover from illnesses overnight, and sometimes treating the symptoms of your condition is the only option.

Below are some symptoms that can make it difficult to fall asleep:

Symptom: Congested nasal passages Take over-the-counter medications, such as antihistamines or decongestants, like a nasal spray or nasal strips.

Keeping your head elevated during sleep also helps with sinus drainage and avoids issues such as postnasal drip. You could also use a neti pot to keep your nasal passages clear.

Symptom: Coughing Over-the-counter cough medicines alleviate coughing.

For a wet cough, sleep with your head elevated, drink warm beverages, and take a steamy shower to help loosen the mucus.

For a dry cough, suck on a lozenge to soothe a sore throat, use a cough suppressant, and stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids. Hot drinks, such as teas with lemon juice and honey, also help.

If a tickle in your throat is causing your cough, you may have allergic rhinitis; in this case, changing your bed sheets often and using an oral antihistamine may help.

Symptom: Sinus pressure Taking decongestants or oral antihistamines may help.

Keeping your head elevated and taking warm showers before bedtime will help, as well as using a nasal irrigator or humidifier.

Symptom: Fever Stay hydrated and use pain medication, such as ibuprofen. Regulate body temperature.

Symptom: Joint pain If you have joint pain, especially from arthritis, you may find it difficult to fall asleep. Pain medication can help.

Make your bed or room as comfortable as you can — whether it means readjusting your pillows, using neck rolls, or regulating the temperature — as this will ease discomfort and help you get to sleep.

Symptom: Runny nose Use antihistamines and decongestants to treat a runny nose.

Sleeping on propped-up pillows helps with mucus drainage. Taking hot showers can keep nasal passages open, making it easier to breathe while you sleep.

Symptom: Shortness of breath Adjusting your sleeping position can help open your airways so breathing difficulties won’t wake you during the night. Propping pillows beneath your head or between your knees also helps.

Symptom: Nausea and heartburn Eat long before bedtime to avoid heartburn and nausea from keeping you awake.

Sleeping slightly elevated on your side will prevent you from choking if you vomit while asleep.

A sick man in bed holds a compress to his head and checks his temperature.

What Are Some Tips for Getting Quality Sleep When You’re Sick?

When you are sick, sleep is very important. While you're resting, your immune system has the chance to fight infection and heal the body.

But it isn't always easy to get a good night's sleep when you're sick; in fact, your sickness may even determine how much sleep you get. It doesn’t have to be this way.

There are some basic things you can do to ensure you get those precious hours of sleep that aid recovery.

Some sleep tips for when you're sick are listed below:

  • Keep your head elevated during sleep.

  • Enjoy a hot shower or bath just before bedtime.

  • Invest in a humidifier for your bedroom.

  • Enjoy a cup of lemon and honey tea before you go to bed.

  • Avoid eating large meals or greasy foods before bedtime.

  • Avoid consuming caffeinated beverages in the evening.

  • Take medication to treat the symptoms of your illness.

A woman stands into a shower and looks up at the water.

How to Practice Good Sleep Hygiene

Good sleep habits — also known as sleep hygiene — refer to practices, behaviors, and environmental factors that contribute to a good night’s rest.

When you follow a routine and adjust your environment to optimal conditions for sleep, you'll increase your chances of getting the rest you need to recover from sickness and maintain a robust immune system.

Below are some things you can do to ensure you get great quality sleep each night:

  • Keep a fixed sleep schedule: When you go to sleep at the same time and wake at the same time every day, your body will fall asleep with little effort.

  • Make your room conducive to sleep: A dark, quiet room will help send you straight to dreamland. Blackout curtains, earplugs, and eye masks can help you block out sights and sounds that make it difficult to sleep.

  • Regulate the temperature: The optimal temperature for sleeping is set between 60 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit, so sleeping in a room with this temperature will help you rest more easily. Alternatively, regulate your body temperature to what’s most comfortable for you at night.

  • Invest in a supportive bed: A bad bed can really affect your sleep quality, so buy a supportive mattress and pillow (not too hard or too soft).

  • Listen to your body: Don’t force yourself to stay awake when you’re tired, and don’t try to sleep when you still feel wide awake. If you’re still exhausted when you wake to the sound of your alarm clock, it may be a sign that you should go to bed earlier.

  • Turn off electronic devices: The blue light emitted by electronic devices, such as cellphones and laptops, are really bad for those trying to get to sleep. Scrolling through videos before bedtime also keeps the mind active, making it hard to wind down.

  • Avoid certain sleeping pills: This point may seem counterintuitive when you’re trying to get to sleep, but sleeping pills should be reserved for extreme cases. The more you use them, the more dependent you’ll become. Rather address the underlying cause of your sleeplessness.

  • Avoid stimulants and depressants: Cutting back on caffeine, alcohol, and cigarettes will help you fall asleep quicker and increase the quality of the rest you get.

  • Relax before bedtime: Try not to do anything that will overstimulate your mind before bedtime. Try reading, prayer, meditation, listening to music, or taking a relaxing bath or shower.

  • Avoid long naps during the day: If you need to take a nap during the day, ensure that it’s no longer than 60 minutes or it may interrupt your sleep cycle.

A couple lays in bed with the lights off, both of them on their phone.
Key Point: What Are the Best Sleeping Positions?

Good sleeping positions are comfortable and should promote spinal alignment and muscle relaxation.

Some of the most beneficial sleeping positions include:

  • Sleeping on your side: Sleeping on the right or the left side (both have different benefits) is great for older people, those who are pregnant, or those who suffer from acid reflux, back pain, or sleep apnea.
  • Sleeping on your back: This position is great for avoiding neck and back pain and maintaining spine alignment. If you’re concerned about facial wrinkles, this is possibly the best slee__ping position to avoid them.
  • Sleeping on your side with bent knees: Those who are pregnant will benefit most from this position as it relieves pressure in the belly and promotes improved blood circulation. Using a pregnancy pillow may make this position even more comfortable.
  • Sleeping slightly elevated: You can elevate your side or back sleeping position by propping yourself up on pillows or using a sit-up pillow (reading cushion).

It is not advisable for people to sleep on their stomachs, as it provides the least back support and even increases strain on the spine, which may lead to back pain and a misaligned spine over time.

You should avoid sleeping on your back if you:

  • Are pregnant
  • Snore or suffer from sleep apnea
  • Have back pain
  • Suffer from acid reflux
  • Are overweight
  • Are an older adult
A pregnant woman lays with a pregnancy pillow on her bed.

What Are the Benefits of Quality Sleep?

There are several benefits of getting the right amount of quality sleep, especially when you’re recovering from illness or injury.

Whether you’re nursing a sore throat, stuffy nose, common cold, or simply trying to make it through flu season, sleep may provide relief from your symptoms and help you on the way to recovery.

When you’re sleeping, your body’s immune system can repair tissue, fight infection, and rebalance your hormones.

Sleep boosts your recovery process, but getting the right amount of quality sleep each night also helps to:

  • Improve your health and lower your risk of developing serious illnesses

  • Lower your stress levels

  • Strengthen your immune system

  • Improve your overall mood

  • Improve your memory

  • Reduce inflammation

  • Maintain a healthy weight

A man sips on a mug of tea.

What Kinds of Medications or Remedies Can I Use for Better Sleep?

If the sleep tips we’ve already discussed in the article are not enough to help you get the rest you need, there are home remedies you can try.

Some home remedies you could try for improved sleep include:

  • Chamomile

  • Valerian root

  • Magnesium

  • Regular exercise

  • Meditation

  • Lavender oil

  • Decaf herbal tea

  • Cherry juice

If the above remedies don’t work, you may want to discuss the following medications with your doctor for sleeping better:

  • Doxepin

  • Ramelteon

  • OTC medications, such as antihistamines

A man lays in bed and holds his hands over his forehead and eyes.

When Should I See a Doctor for Sleeplessness?

If illness keeps you from getting the sleep you need, be sure to treat the underlying medical condition first — whether it's allergies, a common cold, the flu, or something else.

If you can't treat your condition with home remedies or over-the-counter medications, be sure to visit your doctor.

Additionally, you should speak to your doctor about sleeplessness, if you:

  • Seem to get the required number of hours of sleep each night, but still wake up tired

  • Have chronic sleep problems

  • Struggle to fall asleep or can’t stay asleep

  • Feel excessively sleepy during the day

  • Often wake up before you intend to

Where Can I Learn More About Sickness and Its Connection to Sleeplessness?

The benefits of good quality sleep cannot be emphasized enough. Sleep helps you to live your best life, and it becomes even more important when you need to recover from sickness.

However, sleep often evades you when you’re sick, which delays the healing process.

If you've been having trouble getting to sleep, LifeMD is here to help. You can meet with a board-certified doctor or nurse practitioner from your smartphone, computer, or tablet. Visit LifeMD.com to book your first appointment.

Dr. Anthony Puopolo

Dr. Puopolo holds a B.A. in Biology from Tufts University, M.A. in Biology from Boston University, and Doctor of Medicine from the Boston University School of Medicine. He also completed a Family Medicine and Psychiatry residency program in the U.S. Army.

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This article is intended for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. Consult a healthcare professional or call a doctor in the case of a medical emergency.

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